California governor’s race travels the information superhighway

Tom Campbell first ran for Congress in 1988 and used just a handful of tools to reach voters in the Silicon Valley district he eventually won.

Getting the campaign’s message out then meant sending out mailers, running print and broadcast advertisements, and speaking to the media. Interacting with voters often meant knocking on their doors.

More than two decades later, Campbell is running for the Republican nomination for governor. This time, he’s reaching millions of people without leaving the comfort of his computer.

The candidate sends campaign updates through the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, and personally e-mails his budget proposals to voters. He holds town hall-style meetings by telephone and lets voters in on his campaign through his blog.

“It is the campaign,” Campbell said of the new media tools. “It is I do the blogs myself. I do hundreds of comments.”

The 2010 gubernatorial race is, in fact, shaping up as the most technology-based contest yet seen in the state, and that’s not just because all five major candidates hail from the Bay Area.

The bulk of the early campaign action is happening online – through YouTube videos, Google search advertisements, social-networking sites and other new media tools.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, led the pack in April by making his candidacy official on Twitter. Five months later, he tweeted about the birth of his daughter Montana as it was happening: “Baby girl :)”

Newsom rival Jerry Brown tweeted homage to his dog: “Happy Birthday to Dharma Brown – 14 years old today. She’s our attack dog, but a very sweet one.”

But most tweets are of the drier, policy-oriented type.

From Republican candidate Steve Poizner: “Also proposing a 50% cut in capital gains tax to ensure investment in CA. What do you think?”

The technology also helps the candidates go on the attack. Poizner, for one, regularly targets opponent Meg Whitman in YouTube videos quickly produced to respond to the latest news.

Whitman, the former CEO of the online auction firm eBay, has spent the most money on her online effort, pouring more than $900,000 into information and technology from January to June. Poizner spent more than $100,000 in the same period to Campbell’s $67,000 and Newsom’s $53,000.

Attorney General Brown, who opened his gubernatorial exploratory committee last week, dedicated about $17,000 to technology costs for his attorney general re-election campaign.

The technology, the thinking goes, not only helps candidates reach voters but also offers a seemingly authentic window into campaigns’ inner workings.

“It’s a fantastic way to let people in on the inside of a campaign and let people know what goes into it,” said Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer at Facebook and a candidate for attorney general.

While the technology wave is just growing, it’s poised to overwhelm traditional tools such as television and radio advertising in political campaigns, said Bryan Merica, a Sacramento-based new media consultant.

“At some point, there’s going to be a tipping point where television has less of an effect than the Internet,” Merica said. “At some point, those old tools aren’t going to work anymore.”

Leaders of both parties said the political scene changed forever when Barack Obama’s presidential campaign broke ground by turning millions of online supporters into contributors, phone-bank workers and on-the-ground organizers.

“There’s no doubt Obama reached new voters with the new media,” said David Kralik, former director of Internet strategy for the conservative political-action group American Solutions. “Record numbers of young people voted in the election, and record numbers of young people voted for Obama.”

The Obama campaign’s main innovation was in recognizing that its online strategy wasn’t just a gimmick but a crucial part of the operation, said Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of the consulting firm Blue State Digital, which coordinated Obama’s online efforts.

“We weren’t subject just to the communications department or just the fundraising department,” Gensemer said. “We were co-equals with other parts of the campaign.”

The results were breathtaking: More than 3 million online donors contributing more than $500 million to Obama, 1,800 campaign-related YouTube videos created, more than 35,000 Obama for America volunteer groups formed through online tools, and a 13 million-strong e-mail list.

“You were starting a personal relationship with the campaign based on your state, your college campus or your interest,” Gensemer said. “The heartbeat of the campaign was that relationship with the voter.”

The Obama effort also included targeted Internet advertising such as buying ad space on job-search sites Monster and HotJobs to reach voters unhappy with the economy.

California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said catching up to the Democrats on technology was one of his top priorities, and the party held a six-hour technology summit at its convention in Indian Wells over the weekend.

Nehring noted at the summit that while at least 90 people worked on Obama’s new media efforts, only four people did the same for Obama’s Republican foe, Sen. John McCain. He also said 44 percent of newly registered voters receive their campaign information from the Internet.

“We need to be there,” Nehring told the summit. “Tell us how we can use technology to communicate, organize and crush as many Democrats as we can in the process.”

The gubernatorial candidates have already pushed the tech envelope further, with Twitter town halls and iPhone app contests a regular part of the race’s vocabulary.

Poizner, for example, has used new media in lieu of paid advertisements to slam Whitman, with political blogs and mainstream media coverage publicizing his YouTube videos.

“You’re spreading it through people who are paying attention to these races,” said Poizner communications director Jarrod Agen. “It’s commentators, pundits, reporters. They’re seeing it.”

The campaigns have bought paid advertising, but much of it has been online. The jousting there reflects the battle voters can expect next year.

The Newsom campaign, for example, has run advertisements backing Newsom whenever a Google search is entered on Poizner. Similarly, advertisements touting Poizner have run in Google searches of Whitman.

“It’s more about jabbing the other guy in the ribs a little bit than winning people over to their campaign,” said Merica, the Sacramento consultant.

The technology isn’t being used only where it can be seen. With Americans leaving ever-bigger online footprints, campaigns are buying ever-richer databases that reveal who voters are and which issues move them.

Theo Yedinsky, Newsom’s new-media director, said his candidate sees the platforms as a kind of perpetual town hall meeting in which ideas, strategies and even everyday tips are shared.

Last week, for example, Newsom shared via Twitter information on everything from fighting climate change to how to cancel delivery of the San Francisco Examiner.

“It’s real-time,” Yedinsky said, “interactive, a place where people can give you feedback and where candidates can reach thousands and thousands of voters where they couldn’t before.”